- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

The World Health Organization yesterday urged airlines to screen passengers for a deadly flulike illness, which the top U.S. health official said was spreading faster than expected.
The Geneva-based health organization previously had not called for such screening, as it did not think the disease known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) could be spread on planes. But that was before Hong Kong disclosed that nine passengers on a flight this month became sick after being exposed to a passenger with SARS.
The WHO has reported 1,283 suspected or probable cases of SARS worldwide, up from 264 cases a week ago.
Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services, told Congress yesterday that more than 1,500 people worldwide could be infected with SARS. That total would include 51 Americans, up from 11 last week.
"It's spreading a little bit faster than we anticipated," Mr. Thompson told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health.
The U.S. patients believed to have SARS live in 21 states, and three are from Virginia, said Karen Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. James Hughes, the CDC's national director of infectious diseases, told reporters yesterday that 44 Americans contracted SARS from travel to a region where the condition was prevalent. The other seven are believed to have contracted the disease through contact with infected patients.
No Americans have died of SARS, but the international death toll is 54, Dr. Hughes said. He noted that the number who have died represents 4 percent of total cases.
Problems with SARS are most severe in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia. Government officials in Hong Kong yesterday announced plans to quarantine 1,000 people and close schools until April 6 because of the threat.
The problem in Hong Kong led the Rolling Stones to postpone two concerts scheduled for that city this weekend.
Singapore has quarantined at least 830 persons and will close schools for several weeks.
WHO leaders said their request to restrict airline travel applies to planes leaving areas affected by SARS: Toronto, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, China's Guangdong province, and Vietnam's capital, Hanoi.
The organization said passengers departing from those regions should be asked whether they have flulike symptoms or have had contact with anyone infected with SARS. Those who say "yes" should not be allowed to fly, it said.
Public health officials around the world strongly suspect SARS is caused by a virus. Three different viruses have been mentioned, but officials are uncertain about which one may be responsible for the illness.
"But the weight of evidence [points] … toward a coronavirus" that has not been seen before, Dr. Hughes said. This suggests the disease is caused by a mutant form of a common cold virus that can destroy or reduce a person's immunity.
"The CDC continues to work with the World Health Organization and national organizations to investigate this ongoing microbial threat. This [outbreak] shows the threat microbes can pose," he added.
Dr. Hughes said suspected U.S. cases of SARS have been "milder overall" than those in other areas.
Seven of the first known cases have been traced to the ninth floor of a hotel in Hong Kong, where a man infected with the disease was staying. The others afflicted were on that hotel floor between Feb. 12 and March 2. One was a Hong Kong resident whose illness spread to dozens of employees in the Prince of Wales Hotel, also in Hong Kong.
Dr. Hughes yesterday hailed a report in the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. He said the report showed a link between "many cases of SARS and a specific hotel in Hong Kong." He said it also explained "how those patients moved the infection to other countries" through travel.
Karen Hunter, a CDC spokeswoman, said the CDC and WHO considered that the virus might have been introduced by terrorists but quickly dismissed that speculation.
This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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